Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | Features

Bite Me!

By Judy Polumbaum
Red editing pencils fly when an audacious wordsmith takes on two legendary style gurus.

Perhaps you know it—The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, now half a century old and in its fourth edition. I certainly do, having sought and recommended its counsel on countless occasions. Indeed, for generations, this slim book of writerly maxims has been a fixture in composition classrooms and an essential reference for authors and editors across the nation. Kind of a Holy Gospel of American English.

It's to the multitudes of acolytes of this handy vest-pocket book we affectionately call Strunk & White that veteran wordsmith Arthur Plotnik, 61MA, directs his latest book. In Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style (published by Random House in 2005, with a paperback edition just out last month), he advocates nothing less than an assault on the Church. Plotnik sees writing as a craft, and perhaps at times an art or science, but not a religion. He commits all manner of heresy as he turns our most venerated authorities on their heads.

Driving from Iowa City to Chicago to interview Plotnik on a balmy November day, I steeled myself for a verbal battle over the merits of the little tome I'd assigned to so many writing classes over the years. I thought about the Spunk & Bite dust cover, which depicts a cartoon dog chomping on a bone, and the yapping introduction, an extended canine metaphor ranging from terriers to poodles. Maybe a boxer or Doberman would meet me at the door.

My subject turned out to be an unlikely provocateur. Arthur Plotnik may be pugnacious in print, but in person he is soft-spoken, self-deprecating, gracious, and unfailingly polite. He lives in a pale yellow house behind a white picket fence on a tree-lined city street, and he doesn't even own a dog—although he and his wife, artist Mary Phelan, do take care of the mixed-breed down the block when the neighbors are away. Only nominally retired after a distinguished career in journalism and publishing, he writes magazine columns and books in a study upstairs, adjoining the studio where his wife paints. He led me on a stroll around the neighborhood, sharing good-natured crankiness about its gentrification, and served me espresso and cookies while patiently submitting to interrogation about his decades of immersion in the world of words and his critique of the hallowed Strunk & White.

Raised in the Bronx and his native White Plains by a stenographer mother and a father who drove a wholesale bakery truck, Plotnik attended college in upstate New York and arrived in Iowa in 1960 with dreams of writing his way to fame. En route to an M.A. in English with a creative writing emphasis, he studied with Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"I was a punk," he says of himself then, but by his account, being in a community of ambitious writers put him in his place. He came to appreciate the thrill of an occasional pat on the back, and he confesses that every so often he still hauls out his thesis—a novelette and several short stories—to see where Roth wrote "good" in the margin.

After a stint as a newspaper reporter followed by a period of churning out what he refers to as "pot-boilers" under pseudonyms during the early 1960s, Plotnik went back to school for an M.S. in library science from Columbia University. He spent three years working for the Library of Congress, and returned to the Bronx as associate editor for the Wilson Library Bulletin, a professional journal that later folded and that librarians still recall with fond nostalgia. In 1975, Plotnik published his first non-fiction book, an empathetic compilation of stories about librarianship across the country; amidst economic stress and the turmoil and strife of the Vietnam War era, he'd found spunky librarians from West Virginia to California accomplishing a great deal with meager resources. That same year, Plotnik moved to Chicago to become editor of the American Library Association's (ALA) magazine, American Libraries; he later assumed editorial direction of the ALA's book publishing arm until retiring from the organization a decade ago.

With his characteristic modesty, Plotnik purports to be "a hack of all trades," as he puts it in his most overtly autobiographical work-published in 1992 as Honk If You're A Writer and reissued in 2000 as The Elements of Authorship, in which he refers to himself in the third person, as an individual named Arthur Plotnikov. In truth, he is a meticulous connoisseur of language who sometimes masquerades as a comedian. A couple of his books, notably The Man Behind the Quill, about the calligrapher of the constitution of the United States, and The Urban Tree Book, a field guide with illustrations by his wife, maintain a serious demeanor; but his works on writing are full of mishaps, humiliations, and other lessons learned the hard way. They also are full of stellar examples, plucky exhortations, and encouraging advice.

Plotnik still has his copy of the first edition of The Elements of Style, published in 1959 when "those who knew about it revered it," he says. If he is no longer an unequivocal fan, neither is he so churlish as to thoroughly dismiss the classic. After all, three of his prior books—The Elements of Editing (1982, a Book of the Month Club selection) and The Elements of Expression (1996, reissued in 2006 by Barnes & Noble) along with the renamed The Elements of Authorship, which calls The Elements of Style "prissy" but "a good primer on common problems"—pay tribute to the title.

Indeed, any self-respecting bookstore keeps The Elements of Style on hand—most likely the fourth edition (2000), which merely added a new foreword by New Yorker writer Roger Angell to the third (1979). In a typical semester, the University of Iowa Book Store stocks it for four or five classes, according to textbook manager Dana Wagner. While its popularity for composition classes may have waned, orders come for subjects as varied as African-American studies, business, biology, and music. Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City likewise reports ordering it for several classes a semester as well as keeping it in general stock. "It's like Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye," says Paul Ingram, 70BA, the store's chief buyer. "It's one of those things that if you run out, you're hugely ashamed as a bookstore."

Even a critic remains an admirer of sorts. "I still run back and take a cold shower in Strunk & White every time I think I lack clarity and concision," Plotnik admits. Yet, as a guide it falls short on many counts, he contends, including "excitement, adventure, risk, stimulation." Spunk & Bite is Plotnik's envisioned sequel—"for graduates of Strunk & White," he suggests.

In Spunk & Bite, he characterizes Strunk & White as a decent guide to plain English that offers "a quick, authoritarian fix," adding that it's "geriatric"—too old-fashioned, prescriptive, and restrained for the rapidly changing hurly-burly of today's language. His basic message is that, in this age of cyberspace chatter, diversionary distractions, and expressive explosion, writers who want to get past editorial gatekeepers and reach readers must defy convention and even violate rules.

In this spirit, Plotnik assails the traditionalists' most cherished chestnuts. Whereas the gentlemanly Strunk and White admonish us to "Place yourself in the background" and "Do not inject opinion," Plotnik calls on writers to assert their presence and their points of view. Rather than "Prefer the standard to the offbeat," he advocates precisely the reverse. As for eschewing modifiers, he encourages writers to adjectivize and adverbize inventively, and even to concoct neologisms, or made-up words.

"I'm a big relativist in language," he explains. "To me, good writing stimulates and conveys ideas according to the author's intent, aside from right or wrong."

Plotnik, who has two grown daughters, thinks his approach suits the "arch and sarcastic" tendencies of young people these days. Young writers especially "need to go for it and be corrected," he says. "To not go for it is just one of those fears that inhibits writers, and there are enough of those."

As a regular columnist for the Writer magazine, he undoubtedly shall keep challenging literary propriety and exploring unorthodox prose as he contemplates new book topics. He also writes for his website (www.spunkandbite.com), which includes a section called "Spunky's Blogrrr Pages," "written" by the cartoon dog on the cover of Plotnik's latest book.

Lately Plotnik's been thinking about "intensifiers" like very and extremely, and the difficulties of invigorating tired language. "How do you intensify a concept anymore without using these weak props?" he wonders. "How do you do that with better language?"

Plotnik is not entirely convinced the world needs another book on writing, especially given the abundance of advice on the Internet. "I've said what I have to say," he says. "But I'm always putting down new ideas. So maybe not.